Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Om, Boo, Hula and Other Funny Noises

They tell me that Om is the sound of the Universe. The sound of it's creation and the sound that will be left when all the others noises are gone. Ok, so before any yogis out there start getting all zen-nazi with me [grin] can I just state for the record that my sense of humour can be a little sharp, so if that’s going to bother you – move along! There’s nothing to see here!

I’m not saying that Om is total nonsense – really I’m not! To paraphrase something my teacher read out the other morning – ‘the symbol for OM is important because the four parts represent the four states of being’. The key word here is REPRESENT.

No one suggests that the symbol for ‘Om’ IS the four states of being – that it manifests our reality or exists on some existential level. No, we accept that it’s a symbol and, as such is powerful because it REPRESENTS all these things – and symbols can be powerful – as we know from our Mudras... and the golden arches, the swastika and the swoosh... amongst other things.

On that basis, the sound Om, can be said to REPRESENT the sound of the universe and for this reason maybe it's powerful. It is also powerful for several practical reasons: it can be said that the vibration of the sound resonates and makes a physical impact and we can say that the action of the chant brings oxygen into the system, focuses the mind and regulates the breath in preparation for Ujjiyi breathing. All, important stuff.

However, the universe is at least 15 billion years old. Evidence suggests that before this there was void. After this there was gas and eventually matter. There was no life: nothing to witness these events or to create a memory of this time. Therefore no one: not you or I; not the yogic sages; no religious icons; not even the greatest scientific minds of this, or any, generation can say, with any basis of fact, what sound was made – or indeed if any sound was made – at the creation of the universe.

We can guess, we can suppose, we can, of course, mythologise – but we can’t KNOW. So to state as a fact, with a full stop at the end, that OM is the sound of the Universe, is specious.

That is not to say you can’t believe this! Believing something that has no rational basis, but which feels right on an instinctive level is the foundation of all Religion! So whilst I do not agree with this practice as a rationale for a belief system – I also realise I am in the minority on this point!

But I do think it’s important to be aware of the difference between BELIEF and FACT. And to remain open to the possibility that your own beliefs, if not based in fact, may be completely incorrect. Historically, confusion between this two crucial ‘truths’ – belief and fact – has been the cause of almost every war and every prejudice the world has seen. Currently of course, we have a climate of religious fanaticism – where confusion between belief and fact leads people to hate and even murder those who give credence to a different ‘truth’.

Furthermore, since the zealots of every persuasion tend to be loud and forceful in their opinions, whereas the rationalists tend to be more circumspect, we have reached a point where the free thinkers in our society are being steamrolled by superstition and mythology. This is a Bad Thing! This is bad for everyone!

In the spirit of Ghandi’s invocation that we should “be the change we wish to see in the world” I think it’s important that rational people, the free thinkers, speak out against superstition where it is presented as fact. I believe a rational society will be a civilised society and who knows – maybe if people can be persuaded to give more weight to the laws of nature, physics and geology – and less credence to blind faith and ‘gut feeling’ – then maybe one day we will be able to call ourselves civilised.

So I am afraid, whilst I have absolute respect for all my fellow yogis and yoginis and I do not seek to offend, I will continue to raise a gently scornful eyebrow when you assure me that you know, without any doubt, what sound was made by an explosion 15 billion years ago.



Judit said...

Dear Jane,

Wow, so much ferocity against poor OM :-) But I feel like I’m starting to know you a bit better and I understand where it’s all coming from (plus you also make it quite clear in this blog). Your blog caught me at the right moment because I just read the HW, the first five sutras as explained by the Santa Claus looking Sri Swami Satchiadananda and I’m full of GREAT spiritual revelations right now :-)
I think with all the outburst against OM based on ideals that are very important to you, you are missing the point. In the explanation to the second sutra Swami Satchiadananda quotes a sanskrit saying „As the mind, so the man; bondage or liberation are in your own mind.” And he elaborates really nicely on the idea that the world is what you make of it. Everything is what you percieve it to be, with your mind. That’s true for OM as well. So just let go of the thought that OM being the sound of the universe is a belief that could cause religious wars and it’s hindering free thinking. Instead, BE a free thinker. Replace it with the thought that OM is a vibration to remind us all of the one-ness of the universe. (Because it couldn’t be divided at its creation already, could it? It had to be one and undivided, like we all are until we are born and the trouble called life starts.) Well, maybe you don’t like this I just realise, but the point is, be in control of your mind enough to replace your original perception of OM with another one, one that appeals to you. Back to Gandhi: the change should be on the inside.
Because, does it matter if the universe really made a sound when it was born and whether it was OM or Boo or Hula? Not the least bit. The point is to give a chance to feeling the one-ness. Or call it love or Samadhi or absolute bliss or... whatever you like. But don’t let your rational mind take you away from this experience or at least the contemplation of it just because it’s stuck on the fact whether the universe really made this sound when it was born and how the belief in this fairytale reflects a limited mind. Don’t feel anything when chanting OM or when chanting anything for that matter? Doesn’t matter. But you have to give it a try (a few times, at least) without letting your mind be part of the process. As Swami Satchiadananda explains, that is yoga. If you control your mind, you control everything, he says. Don’t let it control you, you wanna have it the other way around.
So don’t be stuck with OM. You have to go deeper than that. There are much more important issues to tackle...

Anonymous said...

There's a famous Zen rock garden in Japan (I forget exactly where). It has fifteen stones in it. Some enlightened git has so arranged these stones so that only fourteen of them are visible wherever you stand...

Keep playing!

Paul x

Anonymous said...

Heh heh...

...the swooshtika...

heh heh....